Buried Alive - The Death of Your Perfect World (1999)
If you have taken even the slightest step into the modern world of punk and hardcore, you have heard of Terror. Vocalist Scott Vogel is one of the most recognizable frontmen in hardcore; his unbridled passion for the genre and sense of humor (in the form of his trademark “Vogelisms” - look them up) make the band’s live show something to behold. His passion for hardcore didn’t just come from anywhere; and Terror, while Vogel’s most successful and prolific band, was not his first. Vogel was originally in Slugfest and later Despair, two bands that took the patented New York hardcore style of the late ’80s and early ’90s and experimented with more groove and metallic influences. When both bands fell through, Vogel formed Buried Alive with some of his peers from the Buffalo scene. While still rooted in a hardcore sound, this new band took cues from the more dissonant hardcore bands that were popular at the time, like Converge, Turmoil, and Snapcase, and soon enough, the band signed to the now-infamous Victory Records and released their magnum opus The Death of Your Perfect World in 1999.
The band’s most notable musical quality is the incorporation of dissonant leads and chords within a crushingly heavy, hardcore-rooted sound. Dissonance was nothing new the metalcore by 1999, but Buried Alive were one of the first to foreground it in their songwriting and tap into its versatility. The breakdown on “Watching You Die” is as brutal as its title, sounding like something ripped from a Converge record thanks to its plentiful use of dissonance, but the lightly picked minor-second lead on “Kill Their Past” presents the technique in a different light, using it to create an unsettling sonic aura that was fairly innovative at the time of The Death of Your Perfect World’s release.
Many bands over the years have tried to write a record that is a lesson in nonstop punishment and brutality, but The Death of Your Perfect World is a cut above thanks to Buried Alive’s experimentation. It’s absolutely relentless in the way that every riff seems to lead into the next without sounding samey or contrived--case in point, the seamless transition into the two-step in the middle of opener “Watching You Die.” It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to yell Vogel’s lyrics right back at him before the song shifts and you’re suddenly picking it up. The breakdown on “Empty Sky” feels like it comes out of nowhere with little to no build-up, a trope that plagues many bands playing this style of metalcore, but that Buried Alive turn into a strength: its abruptness makes you want to perform horrific acts of physical violence to the person next to you, which is what a good breakdown should do.
Buried Alive’s diverse sound, relative to other “tough guy” hardcore like Hatebreed, allowed them to tour with an equally diverse range of bands during their time together. One weekend they could be on a show with bands like All Out War and Skarhead, and playing with Zao and Nora the next. They’ve shared the stage with bands that sound almost nothing like them, such as H2O, Hot Water Music, and Kid Dynamite. In the world we live in, where mixed bills are becoming more and more common, this might be taken for granted; I obviously wasn’t around back when Buried Alive were playing shows with these bands, but I’m sure that their open-mindedness toward playing shows with bands from virtually every hardcore and metalcore niche must have been a key factor in their popularity.
Lyrically, the record isn’t too out of this world, but Vogel’s bluntness and carefully directed anger makes them manage to not sound as “tough guy” as one would expect. “Six Month Face” is a great example: directly calling out those who only spend their time within the hardcore scene until they eventually tire of it, lyrics like “slowly shed your skin / convictions fucking fade / another six month face / inside you’re dead,” delivered in Vogel’s larynx-shredding scream, come from a place of righteous indignation a little more grounded in reality than the sort of empty posturing that’s always plagued hardcore lyricism. To some, these lines may come across no less goofy than your average hardcore proclamation, but the music goes a long way in convincing the listener that Vogel’s sentiment comes from the heart.
As someone who got into metalcore and hardcore well after Buried Alive’s time, their reunion set at this year’s This Is Hardcore is extremely exciting, but it’s hard not to imagine the heights Buried Alive could have reached had they not left as quickly as they arrived. On an episode of Shane Told’s (of Silverstein fame) podcast, Lead Singer Syndrome, Scott Vogel attributed personal differences towards his decision to leave the band (and Buffalo) following a tour with Death Threat, which led to Vogel moving to Los Angeles and founding Terror. So, while Vogel is not wanting for a successful career in music, given the band’s diversity and Victory Records’s prominence in the ’00s, it’s not a huge stretch to say that Buried Alive could have been as big as a Hatebreed or a Killswitch Engage, if not at the very least bigger than Terror is now. The last line of the last song on the record, “To Live and Die With,” rings eerily true: “we are our own disease / and we will never be what we could be.” Buried Alive may have never become the band that they could have been, but as long as kids continue to shed their six-month faces and explore the roots of the music they love, there will always be a place for them in hardcore.
For The Love Of - Feasting On The Will Of Humanity (1998)
New Jersey doesn’t get the credit it deserves, so the American Metalcore Project would like to take this introduction to formally recognize the home state of Rorschach, Deadguy, Burnt by the Sun, and The Dillinger Escape Plan as one of metalcore’s preeminent scenes, deserving of the same accolades Massachusetts enjoys. Whether they’ve achieved popular success or not, the hardcore and metalcore of New Jersey, especially the New Brunswick area that Deadguy and Dillinger both hail from, has contributed as much to metalcore as Boston by giving a platform to one of the most ferocious underground scenes in metal.
At the forefront of the state’s original hot streak but hardly brought up now were For the Love Of. Despite a modest discography consisting of only a full-length and an EP, their reputation as one of the hardest-working, hardest-playing bands in the scene, and as purveyors of one of the most batshit-crazy live shows in metalcore history (they were known to bring “a sledgehammer, pitchforks, an anvil and a gong on stage” with them, which sounds like some kind of urban legend) cements them as a glaring omission from the metalcore canon. Feasting on the Will of Humanity matches its title note-for-note in misanthropic fury, setting a clear tone on opener “Crawl To Hide” that they are not to be fucked with. Every subsequent track simply underscores this point, right on through “Fractured” and The Amityville Horror sample that ends the album with a disembodied voice hissing “Get out!” While there are plenty of heavy and angry bands, few can match the clinical precision with which For the Love Of clobber their listeners into submission, and even fewer of their peers had such a capable grasp on the dynamics of metalcore.
While it’s hard to argue that For the Love Of are entirely original, amid a scene that was still firmly rooted in hardcore, they were one of the first to incorporate metal tropes like the shreddy riffs that appears midway through “Silent Isolation” and dominate “Further the Shame,” or the twisted guitar lines of “Millennium,” taking great pains to keep their music as lean and vicious as possible. “All Will Be Rid Of” is perhaps the most well-rounded song on Feasting, displays surprisingly accomplished guitarwork that runs the gamut from panic chords to technical journeys along the neck of the guitar and houses some of the album’s wildest breakdowns. The album sometimes strays closer to hardcore (see the gang chants on “Flatline”) and sometimes closer to thrash or even death metal (“Immerse”), but Feasting On the Will of Humanity is unmistakably metalcore in a way that even listeners only familiar with later-wave acts would be able to identify, perhaps by the most superficial distinction: the use of movie samples. It’s not necessarily a new technique--plenty of other bands we’ve covered in the first-wave were doing it before For the Love Of--but it’s a gimmick unique to metalcore and proto-metalcore bands of at the time; one that Eighteen Visions would turn into a staple of the genre through its second wave. Perhaps they, too, like God Forbid, found a little inspiration in For the Love Of.
Structure is where For the Love Of shine, although it’s rather difficult (at least for a non-musician, like myself) to explain. They keep clear of verse-chorus-verse-bridge templates, but each song maintains a distinct orderliness, introducing a main riff, layering a different riff underneath it, and smashing both apart with a breakdown, after which the song detours into passages of shred or larger and more sinister breakdowns. The main riff(s) is braided back in at some later point, and usually ridden out to conclusion. It’s not a terribly inventive approach now, but it’s a stable and satisfying progression not so dissimilar from what second-tier acts like Unearth, Dead to Fall, and God Forbid were up to. Coincidentally or not, God Forbid are an East Brunswick-based metalcore band whose first few records, Out of Misery, Reject the Sickness, and Determination, bear more than a passing resemblance to what For the Love Of were doing with Feasting, and their eventual breakthrough with back-to-back Gone Forever and IV: Constitution of Treason offers a possible career trajectory For the Love Of might have followed if they’d kept together after their final EP, In Consequence.
Not long after their split, as far as these things go, For the Love Of borrowed Nora’s Mike Olender on vocals for a one-off reunion at Hellfest 2004, and again at New Jersey’s Gamechanger World in 2015. Neither show saw the return of the equipment of their heyday, but the band’s energy is as electrifying in that clip of their 2015 set as I imagine it must have been in the late 90s. Even more striking is the enthusiasm of the crowd, especially when you put it in context: for a band that released one album and an EP seventeen years prior, that’s a lot of activity and whole lot of lyrics getting screamed back. It’s hard to imagine many bands formed after For the Love Of exhibiting that sort of staying power, which is not to speak badly of their successors, but in praise of For the Love Of’s “it” factor. Who knows what led to such a high quotient of quality bands in the state, but we fully support whatever led to New Jersey’s late-’90s metalcore scene--and we hope that, with the imminent end of The Dillinger Escape Plan, arguably the state’s finest musical export, they have another renaissance on the way.
Nineironspitfire - Seventh Soul Sacrificed (1996)
The history of Ryan Frederiksen’s bands is a history of the evolution of metalcore; a rabbit hole through some of the most forward-thinking music in the genre; and the upwards career trajectory of a bonafide talent, all in one. From Nineironspitfire through his time in These Arms Are Snakes, Narrows (with other Botch alumni), and currently Dust Moth, Frederiksen has ridden the cutting edge of metalcore decade after decade, bringing an ever-more-refined and individualistic play-style to ever-more-refined and individualistic bands. Nineironspitfire, one of the most interesting projects he was ever a part of, was also, by his own admission, his first project of any consequence. Although he is said to have joined too late to actually play on the album, his influence is almost osmotically detectable: straddling the groovy/spastic line, these leaping riffs and urgent, twisty arrangements are trademark Frederiksen. There’s no hitch between Seventh Soul Sacrificed and the songs he contributed to the Botch split that followed, further fueling my suspicion that he may have had more of a hand in the record than anyone lets on.
I digress, but this will not be the last time we talk about Frederiksen. Instead, let’s talk about the rest of Nineironspitfire: among its alumni are John Pettibone of Seattle’s excellent Himsa, whose vocals are as intense and articulate as anything he did with those bands, if closer in tone to his work with the hardcore Undertow; and joining him from that band, too, is Mark Holcomb (not the one from Periphery!), making Nineironspitfire both a creative step up and a lateral move in popularity. Their hardcore backgrounds are counterpointed by bassist Morgan Henderson, currently Fleet Foxes’ secret weapon (!) but more importantly, a former member of the Blood Brothers (!!), as well as non-Frederiksen guitarist Demian Johnston, who also spent time in Undertow, and later, underrated metalcore act Playing Enemy. With a resume like that, one expects the hardcore backbone and drastic noise flourishes of Nineironspitfire, but the band were Deadguy fans above all, and it shows. They were also, as Frederiksen notes, very into Today Is The Day and “Slint, Shellac, and stuff like that,” all of whose sonic signatures are writ to varying degrees across the music.
Seventh Soul Sacrificed dropped the same year as Screamin’ With the Deadguy Quintet, functioning as a bridge between it, Fixation On A Coworker, and later metalcore greats like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Eso-Charis, and even The Chariot. Across the album, but also within individual songs, Nineironspitfire vacillate between classic metalcore groove (“Undone”) and proto-spazz freakouts (“Lead Poisoning”), conjuring up juggernauts like “Charcoal Drawings/Weapons of Choice” with its long passages of clashing and climbing guitar noise, and the artillery-fire precision of “In the Comfort of Strangers” and “One Last Wish” along the way. The album does a remarkable job of recreating the ominous atmosphere of Today Is The Day’s Willpower through the lens of hardcore, something I can’t say I’ve heard done so well in other records of the time; and although Frederikson seems to imply that Nineironspitfire got into Slint & Co. after Seventh Soul Sacrificed, their iconoclastic songwriting contributes an obvious thread to the band’s mathy, intricate tapestry.
“Far Too Familiar/Execution” makes no bones about that Today Is The Day influence, coming across like a sonic cousin to Willpower’s eponymous opener. Its queasy guitar and sludgy progression make a great introduction to Seventh Soul Sacrificed, but “Read Between the Lines” could have gone down as legendary: starting with a pitch-perfect clip from The Exorcist (the possessed Regan growling “What an excellent day for an exorcism”) that segues directly into a “classic” Nineironspitfire groove, it shows the band using their influences as springboards rather than guides. “You knew it would happen / but what if it fell flat / like life / on a rainy day?” Pettibone roars, as Henderson steers an off-time groove around Dan Dean’s shuddering kitwork. Johnston’s guitar flashes in and out of the mix, accompanied by a series of background screams that sound like the ghost of Jon Davis, or the outro to “Ball Tongue.” Johnston’s riffs overtake the song and the segment repeats before the song morphs into The End-like ballistics, marshalled back into order by a mission statement: “It’s not what I say / it’s how I say it / and my words / once expressed / can never be denied.”
Seventh Soul Sacrificed isn’t a perfect record, but it has potential to spare and a creative spirit worth admiring. The two songs they contributed to their split with Botch, “The Kid” and “#2,” offer a look at a band that’s already begun to refine the molten inspiration on Seventh Soul Sacrificed, sorting out its strengths and learning to cut the excess. Frederiksen’s involvement on the split ushers in a refreshed technicality and more thrilling turns in the songwriting, coupled with a production boost that fleshes out the role of each instrument in the overall sound a little more clearly. It’s not a perfect evolution, and the split leaves a bit of a ragged stump at the end of Nineironspitfire’s career, but those comparisons to The End and The Chariot made above are a lot more telling than they seem: had Nineironspitfire lasted, I don’t think either Transfer Trachea Reverberations... or Everything Is Alive, Everything Is Breathing... would have been nearly as special. The seeds of both albums are here on this 1996 record, and what could have been might have been bigger than both.
Starkweather - Cross Bearer (1992)
No one sounds like Starkweather. I can’t think of a single band that, on first listen, could be mistaken for them, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve read or heard a band described through the lens of their music. That uniqueness, coupled with their lack of direct influence on the genre they supposedly pioneered--I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard the term “Starkweathercore” before now--is even more interesting for their place in the physical geography of American metalcore. Based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, they have nothing in common with Undying or Integrity in the midwest nor the future sounds of New England. As Cosmo Lee, writing for Decibel, once phrased it, Starkweather may have ostensibly been a metalcore band, fusing metal and hardcore tropes, but in the late 80s/early 90s when they appeared, Starkweather “were smashing together metal and hardcore—but not quite making 'metalcore.' 'Metalcore' now implies the worst of both worlds. We're talking about the best of both worlds."
In this entry of the American Metalcore Project, we are writing on the Starkweather that released Cross Bearer in 1992 when metalcore took its first breaths with Earth Crisis, Integrity, and Rorschach--a bit early for our parameters of the "first wave," but it's a necessary exception. In the eight-year period of low activity between their 1996 split with Season to Risk and their 2005 full-length return, Starkweather evolved, and the album that resulted has also proved inimitable, for reasons as apparent in their first incarnation as in the latter. Starkweather are weird. Self-taught and inspired by such un-metal sources as Bjork, Swans, and Sinead O’Connor to more “classic” metal like Celtic Frost, Iron Maiden, Voivod, and Amebix, the band defies easy categorization. Not to say that Cross Bearer is an entirely sophisticated blend of these influences, as this is a warts-and-all debut if there ever was one, but it overflows with ambition, following intriguing muses to unpredictable ends, and metalcore is nothing if not a wide, wide umbrella.
One can only imagine what it must have been like to stumble upon Starkweather amid the waning of thrash and hair metal and the rise of grunge. The guitarwork recklessly marries the downbeat riffage of their punk forebears to clumsy Iron Maiden harmonies, brushing elbows with old school death metal, thrash, and even the crossover scene of the time. Renni Resmini’s vocals alternate between a bizarre, fluey quaver, where the band’s interest in Bjork and Swans is most apparent, to a death-y rasp that has nothing in common with the midrange shouting that became the de facto vocal style of the genre--and yet the dichotomy between clean and harsh, although not as sharp, clearly anticipates what would be the norm by 2001. In an interview with Vista Fanzine, Resmini explains that his vocal approach is influenced by “metal vocalists that use different ‘voices,’” citing Geoff Tate and King Diamond among Voivod’s Snake and Venom’s Cronos.
If it wasn’t clear, Cross Bearer rarely follows traditional structures, but in its hunt for new and exciting paths, its reach sometimes exceed its grasp. Take the momentum-killing “Shards/Unto Me,” bookended by the sinuous “Murder in Technicolor” and “Picture It Obsidian,” where and the band’s overall sense of dynamics fizzles into tepid repetition. Although the bottom end takes inspiration from R&B, jazz, funk, and (bizarrely) Dream Theater and Overkill, both Leonard Emerick and Michelle Eddison yields straightforward, if faintly tribal, rhythmic patterns that don’t quite hold one’s attention over the course of the album. That could be a problem for some. Songs tend to run long, and without clear highs and lows, Cross Bearer can become a punishingly boring listen. Their music is better interpreted as narrative, seeming to develop intuitively, although the description of their songwriting process Renni provides in that same interview with Vista Fanzine illuminates the surprising rigor with which a Starkweather song is built:
All of our songs are a collaborative effort….Usually it begins with Todd [Forkin] recording a ton of guitar parts before he begins arranging things. It used to generally come down to the both of us doing a lot of the structural work before bringing it into the rehearsal room. Todd will work out the transitions, smooth things out on the guitar and bring this framework into rehearsal. Most times it'll flesh out, other times we have to reconstruct it. Some of the individual parts are modified when Harry and Vince hear them. They'll suggest something to alter a part. Sometimes they hear things differently and it'll become different because it will put unexpected beats and rhythms to riffs that'll spin things on it axis. It can ultimately change the complexion of the arrangement. So, we're not really one of these bands that "jams" in the traditional sense. It can turn out that way when we're working through specific sections. Songwriting is my favorite thing. I can't play an instrument but I have an ear for arranging...building, tearing stuff down, arranging rhythms, figuring transitions, navigating the flow of a song….Once it's able to be comfortably played beginning to end I'll put in vocal patterns and then figure out where to go from there with actual lyrics.
Starkweather never considered themselves metalcore Guitarist Todd Forkin insists that, while “flattered” by their reputation as genre pioneers, it’s not necessary the one they’d like to be associated with, and one can see his point: though they borrow elements from hardcore and metal and presaged some of it, Cross Bearer is worlds away from even what metalcore’s earliest outsiders in Deadguy and Nineironspitfire were up to. But, for precisely that reason, Starkweather is vital to metalcore. Their early innovations and nonconformist character represent the genre’s endless flexibility, and although no one could mistake any for the other, their spirit manifests to varying degrees in the music of Unruh, Curl Up and Die (most blatantly on The One Above All The End of All That Is), Will Haven, and Harlots. In light of their seminal position in the metalcore cannon and the overlooked influence, Starkweather deserve reevaluation, at the very least, and a much, much larger audience.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!